Businesses May Be Reopening, but That Doesn’t Mean People Are Ready to Go Back

To re-enter the world, we must re-learn to live with risk.

Illustration by Amanda Lucidi

It feels like an eternity ago now, but I can still remember the unshakable, on-edge feeling of those first two weeks I started working from home. I remember struggling to comprehend that all of a sudden, we were all in danger—that the coronavirus, a disease that fewer than 100 people had tested positive for at that time, was far more widespread than we had thought, and that meant that it could be lurking on the door knobs in my apartment, on the mail I tossed absently on the counter, or in my body. So, as I waited out the incubation period of the virus particles that I may have encountered on my last rides on the T and my last days at the office, I scrubbed, bleached, and depleted my precious paper towel supply, working myself up until my face would flush, and then taking my temperature to make sure I didn’t have a fever. Outside, businesses were closing, ambulance sirens were wailing, and my friends were losing their jobs. Inside, at least, there were things I could control.

Two months later, Governor Charlie Baker is on the verge of unveiling the details of the four-phase plan to re-open the state’s economy—so I’m beginning to confront the possibility of ceding some of that precious control. There’s a direct correlation, I think, between how much control we can exert over spaces and how safe we feel in them. In our homes, we’re Lysol-wiping our groceries and letting packages sit on our doorsteps a little longer, preserving the sterility of our bubbles and the level of comfort we feel in them. But if the number of stories about citizen policing is any indication, we’re still grasping for some of our indoor power when we head out into the world. People are now yelling slurs at strangers who they think aren’t adequately distancing, reporting children blowing bubbles to Boston 311, and occasionally pulling knives on joggers who feel a little too close for comfort. As this imminent reopening plan takes shape here in Boston, I wondered: How are we all going to feel about being in spaces where we can’t manage all the variables?

According to Dr. Michelle Durham, an adult, child and adolescent psychiatrist at Boston Medical Center, it’s normal to experience a wide array of emotions after undergoing a traumatic experience like the COVID pandemic. “Even though the doors may open and people may feel like you can do many of the things we were doing prior to COVID, some people may still be very afraid,” Durham says. While she firmly believes that most people will eventually be able to recover and adapt to whatever our new world brings, Durham says that it’s expected that some will experience things like trouble sleeping, trouble focusing, fear, feeling constantly on guard, and sadness as we attempt to resume lives closer to the ones we used to know. It’s a problem if these symptoms never abate or if they interfere with many aspects of one’s daily life, Durham says, but at first, “we have to do what we’re comfortable doing,” even if that means avoiding public transit, continuing to wear a mask after the mask order is lifted, or staying away from our newly-opened businesses for awhile. “This is going to be another new routine for us,” Durham says. “It may take a little bit of time.”

I had imagined over the past few weeks that a return to normal would be welcome news, but the truth is that the thought of returning to restaurant tables and movie theater seats and the elliptical at the gym makes my stomach sink. With the virus definitively still circulating, I’ll still be weighing every choice to leave my home against the risk of contracting a disease that has killed over 5,000 state residents—and when the stakes are that high, I’m not sure that many things will seem worth going out for anymore. While I’m certainly not among the vigilante social distancing police, and I recognize that we must eventually rebuild our tolerance for risk, I’m hardly comfortable relaxing my grasp on control enough to go to the lowered-capacity, plexiglass-barriered grocery store once a week. I find it hard to imagine feeling okay at restaurants, hair salons, elevators, or on train cars anytime soon.

Curious to know if others feel the way I do, I posed the question on Twitter: When COVID restrictions are lifted, do you think you’ll be too afraid to go outside for awhile? Or will you head straight to the spots you’ve missed during quarantine? While a handful of people replied saying that they had no fear whatsoever about returning to business as usual, the majority of respondents seemed to be in the same boat as me: Tired of being cooped up and ready to return to normalcy, but afraid, to varying degrees, of what that return could bring.

Jasmine Heyward, a Jamaica Plain resident and nonprofit manager, tells me that even as businesses begin to open, they don’t expect to deviate much from the social distancing routine they have been following for the past weeks. “I have developed a pretty bad fear of going outside and don’t expect that to magically disappear when stay-at-home is lifted,” Heyward says. And, worried about how the effects of COVID would compound upon some of the longstanding health concerns they already face, they say they would potentially go out to see choice friends once social distancing restrictions are lifted, but that places with lots of people will be out of the question for awhile. “I’m not going to be comfortable hanging out in crowded places until about a month after it’s really truly safe by scientific standards, whenever that is.”

Lilly Milman, a local writer, also tells me she’s feeling fearful as she looks to the future. “Although I love going out to restaurants and checking out new stores and seeing movies, I think the severity of the pandemic has made me reevaluate how unsafe I feel going to any crowded place in general,” she says. “It definitely won’t be the same even for a long time after all of this is over for me.”

When, I wonder, will it feel the same to me? What, exactly, would I feel comfortable doing as restrictions begin to ease? My week-nine quarantine brain likes to entertain itself by running through various hypothetical scenarios. Would sitting at a bar where the seats are spread six feet apart feel okay? What about a socially-distanced yoga class? What about trying on clothes in a changing room? What about watching a game at TD Garden? Above everything else, I so badly want to be okay with the thought of going to a restaurant, sitting down, and being served a meal that hasn’t been inside a foil container first—but I’m not sure that I am. There are so many other factors I would have to consider: How case numbers and hospitalizations are trending, if others around me were behaving responsibly, if I trusted that the decision to reopen was responsible and rooted in science.

Adam Amundson, a retail manager and Seaport resident, says he’ll be weighing all these variables and more as he formulates his approach to businesses reopening. “If on a Saturday afternoon my wife and I want to go have a beer somewhere, my first choice is not going to be a bar or a restaurant that I know is not limiting the amount of people,” he says. Instead, he’ll opt for places he knows are limiting capacity and asking people to wear masks and wash their hands, a standard he recognizes will take extra planning-ahead. “I don’t think that I’ll be able to wake up on a Saturday morning and be like ‘Hey, today I’m going to do this,’ and just go the way that I could last summer,” Amundson says. “Every one of us is going to have to create a new process for what going out, socializing, and being in public spaces looks like for the foreseeable future.”

James Holt, a Charlestown resident who works for a staffing company, says he has not yet determined what a business would need to do to make him feel comfortable. “I travel fairly frequently for work, so I’ve been thinking about whether I’ll be eager to go to Logan and hop on planes again,” he says. “I think it’s really going to be a play-it-by-ear scenario.” Holt says he would love to get back to drinks at breweries, dinners at Charlestown’s Brewer’s Fork, and using the passes to the MFA and Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum he and his wife were gifted for their wedding last year—but that before he makes it back to public spaces, he’s probably going to try hanging out with people he knows first. “I’ll have friends that will all want to get together, and that’s more of a controlled environment,” Holt says. “ I think I’ll be thinking about things in those terms—what are the different variables that one can and can’t control?”

This seems to be the crux of the conflict everyone I talked to is facing. Everyone wants to support local business owners. Everyone told me they’re willing to continue wearing masks and to maintain social distancing. Everyone is eager to do everything they can to help us resume regular life as safely as possible. But at the same time, we all know that the moment we step out of our homes and blink in the sunlight of the post-lockdown world outside, the vice grip we have on our personal security is over. By touching handrails and store displays, by sitting in seats that others just vacated, and by putting our lips on restaurant glasses, we are, in essence, signaling our trust—that the people around us are taking all the same precautions to not infect us that we are taking to not infect them. And no one I talked to feels quite ready for that.

“People in my area really aren’t trying with social distancing,” Heyward says.

“I just think about how easy it is to let your guard down a little bit,” Holt says. “You don’t realize that you’ve caught it for fourteen days, and all of a sudden, you started this chain reaction again.”

I’m under no illusion that I’m social distancing better than everyone else. I fully believe that most people out there are in fact being careful and thoughtful. But at the same time, I know that it only takes one infected person, one slip-up of the rules, to launch another outbreak. I could get sick this time. I could be the asymptomatic spreader this time. We might even all have to stay at home again, and the city would emerge even more economically devastated this time.

“Can you imagine having to go through this all over again?” Amundson says. “For me, the thing that gives me the most anxiety is that we rush back into something, and then have to re-close everything. That’s why I say let’s take it slow.”

Earlier this week, one of my friends who lives in Minneapolis found out that some in-store retail and limited group gatherings will be allowed as the city’s stay-at-home order expires this week. “I’M GETTING SPRUNG,” my friend texted me when he heard the news. I asked him if he was already planning a ten-person party. “In an outdoor, well-ventilated location,” he said. “But yes.”

Would I feel safe being one of those ten?, I found myself wondering afterward. I would, I think. When I imagine myself at that type of gathering, I don’t find my mind’s eye zooming in on the un-Cloroxed door knobs and chair backs and tabletops. I think instead of the things I’ve missed: talking face-to-face, splitting bottles of wine, playing Scattergories around the same table, seeing what pants and shoes my friends are wearing. These types of gatherings, hosted by people I know in spaces that are private, are where I’ll be turning first—and for a while. The real world is big, unpredictable, and teeming with people. That’s what makes the thought of going out into it liberating. But it’s what makes it a little too scary right now, too.